“If a man therefore purge himself from these, he shall be a vessel unto honour, sanctified, and meet for the master’s use, and prepared unto every good work.” 2 Timothy 2:21
In 2 Timothy chapter 2, Paul told Timothy to, “Purge himself from these” in order to become “a vessel unto honour, sanctified, and meet for the master’s use.” The “these” from which Timothy must purge himself in order to be used of God are false teachers, such as Hymenaeus and Philetus. Clearly the Lord calls for preachers to separate themselves from heretics in order to have His blessing and power.
The Pastoral Epistles give many important truths for preachers to know and practice. In the second chapter of Second Timothy, several of these truths are taught through comparisons that are made of the preacher’s work with common situations in life. The preacher is compared with a father that passes things on to his son in verses 1 and 2. He is compared with a soldier in verses 3 and 4, an athlete in verse 5, a farmer in verse 6, a workman in verse 15, a vessel in a great house in verses 20 and 21, and a servant in verses 24–26. The comparison with a vessel teaches that, just as there are good dishes and not-so-good dishes in the kitchen of a big house, so the house of God contains both vessels of honor and vessels of dishonor. Some are fit for use at important occasions and some are unfit for such use. The preacher’s hope is to be considered by God as a “vessel unto honour,” useful for “every good work.”
The presence of false teachers in the churches is acknowledged and even emphasized in 1 and 2 Timothy. Because Timothy apparently knew these men personally, the apostle went into detail to explain what had happened to make these once-orthodox men into heretics. First they “swerved” away from a Biblical focus on “charity out of a pure heart, and of a good conscience, and of faith unfeigned” (verses 3–6). Then they “turned aside unto vain jangling, desiring to be teachers of the law; understanding neither what they say, nor whereof they affirm” (verses 6–7). Eventually, they had “made shipwreck” and had to be rejected (verses 18–20).
Now men, as Paul well knew, can be rescued from a shipwreck, but some of these straying prophets may have corrupted themselves beyond rescue, “giving heed to doctrines of devils, speaking lies in hypocrisy; having their conscience seared with a hot iron” (see chapter 4, verses 1 and 2). Although Timothy was to have a positive ministry among the saints at Ephesus, teaching sound doctrine in order to combat the influence of the false prophets (see 1 Timothy 4:6–16), he was also to oppose them, remembering the words of our Lord warning us against the wolves in sheep’s clothing (see Matthew 7:15–23).
The antecedent of the word these in 2 Timothy chapter 2 is the teachers exposed in the previous verses, referenced with the words their word in verse 17, of whom in the same verse, who in verse 18, and named in verse 17 as Hymenaeus and Philetus.
The biblical doctrine of separation, although controversial among many evangelicals today, is woven throughout Scripture. On the first day of creation, God spoke and light appeared, “And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness” (Genesis 1:4). God makes known what He likes and what He does not like, and He calls for the two to be kept apart and distinct. God distinguished between the Egyptians and His own people in the sending of the plagues, and in Exodus 9, He even distinguished between the Egyptians that believed His Word and those who “regarded not” the Word of the LORD. Moses called for the people to separate themselves from Korah and the others who rebelled.
The Law demanded that distinctions be made between what would be regarded as clean and what would be called unclean, and shunned. The Law insisted that distinctions be made in fabrics used to make clothing and in what kind of beast could be yoked with another. King Jehoshaphat (in Second Chronicles 19) was rebuked for joining the apostate Ahab in battle. King Amaziah (in Second Chronicles 25) was rebuked for wanting to hire a hundred thousand soldiers from the apostate northern kingdom of Israel to help him fight the Edomites. The apostle Paul wrote in Second Corinthians 6,“Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness? and what concord hath Christ with Belial? and what part hath he that believeth with an infidel?...Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing…” (Verses 14 through 18)
He wrote in Ephesians 5:11, “Have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness….” Servants of the Lord must make a difference between light and darkness, and must purge themselves of what is evil in order to please God.
In the past hundred years, revival-minded people have had a hard time purging themselves, and the result of this reluctance has been the failure to see much of the power of the Holy Spirit in our work. New Testament revival is about having the power of the Spirit in our work and in our lives, and the great revivals of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were characterized both by this power and by the bold denunciation of sin. But the great issue of purging the churches of false teachers confronted evangelical Christians in the first part of the twentieth century, and challenged them in regard to whether they would pay a price to please God.
Pastors and church members became aware of the growing influence of liberal theology in their denominational organizations. In the Methodist, Presbyterian, and Baptist church groups, men could be found in the employ of the organization who denied cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith.
Liberalism at the beginning of the century was a theological viewpoint produced by the growing retreat at the seminaries from faith in the infallibility of the Bible, combined with the growing trend among church leaders to emphasize the reforming of society over the saving of souls. The result of this combination was a new definition of Christianity that relegated to unimportance the affirmation of doctrines such as the deity and virgin birth of Christ, the bodily resurrection of Christ, and the necessity of the new birth. Liberals did not believe that the Bible is infallible, that Jesus is God, that Mary was a virgin when Jesus was born, that He necessarily rose literally and physically from the dead, or that there really is a Hell. They wanted the church to work in the world to address such things as poverty, ignorance, disease, inequality, and war. They were perched on the branches of every traditionally evangelical tree, as seminary professors, pastors of influential churches, missionaries in far-away places, and denominational officials. But discerning Christians could see that these “liberal” teachers were not really Christians at all.
The grassroots movement that challenged the infiltration and influence of liberalism was eventually called “fundamentalism.” At first fundamentalism amounted to sermons, writings, conferences, and groupings in the denominations that exposed liberalism as heresy. Then it moved forward in the form of battles to expel liberals from their perches in the church organizations. However, by the middle 1930s, the fundamentalists had failed to uproot liberalism and the liberals in the churches.
Any careful study of the history of fundamentalism shows that the early fundamentalists were men and women touched by the revivals and revival movements of the nineteenth century. The revivalist Torrey was one of the first leaders, and the evangelist Billy Sunday was their hero. Revivalism spawned fundamentalism in many ways, and fundamentalists through the 1930s generally believed in revival. But then the question of purging came to them in a different way. Since false teachers were not purged from the churches, what shall orthodox Christians do? Some came to see that the right and scriptural thing to do was to, “Come out from among them and be… separate” (see 2 Corinthians 6:17). Gradually fundamentalists began to withdraw from the mainline denominations and minister independently. But there was a controversy brewing in the 1940s that led to the disaster evangelicalism has been experiencing for over sixty years.
The revival fervor of the fundamentalists did not die in the World War II era. It rose with new hopes and new visions of great evangelistic triumphs. However, most of the revival-minded failed to see the importance of purging. Many stayed tied to church groups that acknowledged liberals (false prophets) as fellow Christians. Many joined the “New Evangelical” movement that spurned separation and advocated infiltration, proposing dialogue with liberals as spiritual equals and also “ecumenical” evangelistic crusades with the heretics involved as co-laborers. The controversy led to the split in the fundamentalist movement in the 1950s and 1960s over ecclesiastical separation. Shall preachers who believe the Bible purge themselves of those who deny it? Those who would, split to the right and those who would not, split to the left. The ones who practiced purging kept the name “fundamentalist,” and those who saw no need to make an issue of orthodoxy took the name “evangelical.” However the sad fact is that many of the revival-minded went left with the compromisers.
This is simply a historical fact. Prominent men who called themselves fundamentalists in the 1930s and preached revival truth at fundamentalist conferences in those days, did not to purge themselves. They spoke and taught in favor of evangelizing the masses, of praying for revival, and of living in the power of the Spirit, but they did not purge themselves of the evil that had defiled the churches. Was it because they felt that taking a militant stand was somehow less than Christ-like? Did they fear that controversy would destroy the spirit of revival? Did they think that some of those who demanded the purging were carnal men? Were they uncomfortable staying associated with the separated fundamentalists for some reason? Obviously, many of them were uncomfortable with that association, although they could accept associating with the wolves!
As a result of the split, the character of the separatist movement changed somewhat. The influence of fervent revival men had been diminished because many of them had defected in the battle. Now the pessimism of what had been a small element in pre-war fundamentalism was having more influence. The pessimists were convinced that revival was not possible in these times. Either because apostasy in the churches or moral decline in society prevented it, or because history had entered a non-revival era, they taught that revival could never really happen again. Some of them allowed for small revivals, but definitely not big ones. The pessimists reacted strongly (as they should have) against the false teachings of the Pentecostals, but in doing so discouraged talk about the Holy Spirit and the practice of revival prayer. Some concocted new interpretations of certain Scriptures which were just as erroneous as the false Pentecostal doctrines they were invented to combat. So a cold wave of anti-revival pessimism arose in the fundamentalist movement.
However, the hope of revival did not die on the right. Certain notable evangelists kept revival theology alive in the separatist movement. Conferences on revival and soul winning not only exposed the error of cooperative evangelism that yoked Bible-believers with the liberals, but also encouraged fundamentalists to carry on aggressive evangelism. That portion of the separatist movement saw some revival in the sixties and seventies, in answer to prayer and connected with consecrated faith and effort. But those that denied revival didn’t see it, and grew colder.
The revivalism that refused to purge itself of wolves didn’t succeed either. Although believing in revival brings revival much more often than not believing in it does, trying to have revival without separating from evil blunts the effect of any revival one might see. This has been the experience of New Evangelicalism. Honoring and including the liberals contributed to the size and fame of evangelical efforts, but it has also prevented the power of full-scale revival. The most famous evangelist of our time has lamented that, although millions professed faith in Christ through the work of his organization, no appreciable dent was put into the moral decline of Western society over the past sixty years.
Revival comes when believers take God’s side on every issue. This necessarily requires separation from evil. The word holy is translated in the Bible from words that have the idea of setting apart or separation, and holiness is a characteristic of real revival. Therefore, revival efforts will fail if there is no separation.
Some who do not understand the truth of separation have experienced a measure of revival because God in His mercy revives His people according to their knowledge of the truth. A deficiency in knowledge will not prevent revival altogether, but it will limit the purity and power of the revival.
We will be fit for the Master’s use only when we have purged ourselves of things that He hates. One thing the God of truth does hate is falsehood, and He calls on us to separate from those who teach it. After Paul charged Timothy to purge himself from false teachers, the apostle called on him to purge himself also of unholy behavior as well.
“Flee also youthful lusts: but follow after righteousness, faith, charity, peace, with them that call on the Lord out of a pure heart.” 2 Timothy 2:22
Revival calls for separation both from unclean teachers and from unclean behavior. God is holy, and so must we be if we are to be filled with His Spirit and used by Him. It’s as simple as that. Efforts at evangelism that ignore or disdain separation from sin will ultimately fail, because they will not have the blessing of God. Attempts at reaching the world by conforming to the world never really succeed. For a time, the use of worldly attractions to attract a crowd to church will seem to succeed but finally and fundamentally it will fail. Methods that involve yoking up with unbelievers in order to convert them will also ultimately fail, because revival and separation go together.
Let us learn also that separation without revival is a dead-end road. Joshua told the Israelites, “Sanctify yourselves, for tomorrow the LORD will do wonders among you” (Joshua 3:5). Their separation from what was repugnant to God was for the purpose of seeking His favor and His miraculous acts. Again separation is connected to the power and blessing of God. So disconnecting separation from revival can seem pointless and certainly lead to a very dead end. Biblical separation is not a cold, harsh, lonely thing, but rather the door to full fellowship and partnership with the God who loves all the world! If we are to reach the world with the love of God, we must do so in partnership with Him.
May we at this critical time in the history of the world, put separation and revival back together where they belong. May we purge ourselves of the false teachers that defile our fellowships, organizations, and associations, in order to please God whose reviving work we seek. May we purge ourselves of practices, both in our personal lives and in church work, that violate the principles set down in the Bible. May we purge ourselves that we might be used by Him to meet the needs of our dying world!